Drawing a Line o the Events of 1947

By Ghazala Akbar

quaid-in-chairThe division of the Sub-continent into India and Pakistan and eventually into Bangladesh reverberates 66 years after the event. Partition as we are painfully aware did not begin or end in 1947. Not a single day passes, in the collective memories and in the present day politics of our three countries when we are not reminded or are rueful of the consequences of this cleaving. It is a continual work-in-progress, a chapter that never seems to close.

Was Partition a logical conclusion of the colonial policy of divide and rule? Was it inevitable, unavoidable or engineered? What were the pressures on the British Government in scissoring their most prized imperial possession and exiting the scene in indecent haste? Who was responsible for giving Pakistan its final ‘moth-eaten’ shape? Could the blood and tears have been minimised? And the eternal question:  why didn’t they settle the issue of Kashmir then and there in 1947?

A recent play performed at the Hampstead Theatre in London re-examines these themes from a refreshingly new perspective. It is not the dominant persona of Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah or Mountbatten that take centre stage but a seemingly bit player, Cyril Radcliffe, an unassuming Judge who was entrusted with the unenviable task of setting the final boundaries of the lands we now know as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Dramatising a pivotal moment of South Asian history that is slowly being lost to living memory ‘Drawing the Line’ by Howard Brenton is a vivid political essay that examines personal relationships, political intrigue, double-speak and outright bias that underscored the final moments of the dying Raj. Deftly mixing fact and fiction Brenton weaves a provocative historical narrative in two and a quarter riveting hours, with each line loaded with intent and meaning. The minimalist sets — light-filtering through full-length filigree screens furnish a stunning backdrop.

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This is not the sepia-tinted Raj nostalgia that we often see on screen, of stiff-upper lipped Sahibs and linen-clad Memsahibs wistfully lowering the Union Jack on the Gateway of India. This is a hard-nosed examination of realpolitik, a revelatory fly-in-the-wall account on how amongst other factors, an uneasy marriage and an illicit liaison influenced the unfolding of political events and impacted the map of Pakistan.

So how did this all come about? The author of the work, Howard Brenton, on a vacation to India in 2009, met people whose families had migrated from the area of Pakistan. His curiosity about Partition was aroused.  Back in England he wondered:  how was the border drawn? His researches led him to Cyril Radcliffe, ‘a brilliant legal mind…but there are indications that during the time he spent drawing the border he had a personal crisis. My playwright’s brain went into overdrive…what a character, what did he go through, a decent liberal man confident in his sense of ‘fairness’, thrown into that bewildering and violent situation…’

And so it begins in the heat of July 1947.  Radcliffe who has never travelled abroad except for Venice is sent by the post-war Attlee government to chair the Boundary Commission that will bring an ‘honourable end’ to the Raj in India. ‘Tiny little problem though’ says his wife, matter-of-factly. ‘You know bugger all about India’. What he knows about cartography and creating countries is even less. But what he does know is that the task will be messy and bloody. 100, 000 deaths would be ‘an acceptable level’ says a cynical, preening Mountbatten, the last Viceroy.

Radcliffe has just five weeks to do the job. He must cut-up the map of India and locate a new country, Pakistan which ‘exists in the heart but not on earth’. He must be logical, unemotional, impartial, independent and fair…but can he really be all these things? Upon arrival, he is sucked into the whirlpool of Indian politics and confronts its ugly realities. Amongst his staff there are lobbyists and spies for both camps. They can barely conceal their hatreds and prejudices or even be in the same room together.

The maps, the census figures are outdated or unreliable. There is no time for on-the-spot inspections. He has a timetable to which he must strictly adhere. As the clock ticks, his unsuitability to the Indian climate takes its toll; he is stricken with a severe bout of ‘Delhi-belly.’ The complexities of the task, of dividing communities, towns, villages, fields, irrigation schemes, communication links, rivers, ports and cities is all too much.  He begins to unravel… physically, psychologically.

Not only must Radcliffe reconcile the implacable interests of the Congress and the Muslim League, there is pressure from another quarter: the imperious Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten and his wife Edwina. Far from being neutral spectators, the glamorous power-couple have their own concerns. Mountbatten has a particular vested interest in exiting India, fast: his beautiful, financially-independent wife is besotted with the future Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. There is talk of divorcing ‘Dickie’, marrying Nehru and becoming the First lady of India.


Although it is not part of any official record, the romantic relationship of Nehru and the viceroy’s wife has writ large in the gossip columns of history. (Certainly, in Pakistan there were never any doubts). In Alex Von Tunzelmann’s engaging 2007 work (‘Indian Summer: the secret history of an Empire)’ the English historian devotes considerable space to the affair and the Mountbatten’s ‘open marriage’. (Some critics say she gives it too much space, given it is a scholarly work!)

Mountbatten’s daughter Pamela Hicks in her book, (‘India remembered: a personal account of the Mountbattens during the transfer of power’) admits the couple were ‘in love’ but that the relationship was purely ‘platonic’. They frequently wrote letters to each other. And when Edwina died prematurely at age 58, Nehru sent two Indian frigates to accompany her last rites at sea. (Imagine the uproar in the Indian parliament and media were this to happen now!)

To what extent this friendship affected the final shape of the map of the sub-continent can only be imagined. Brenton’s Play, however, leaves little room for doubt and he uses considerable poetic license to spice things up. Nehru and Edwina are shown in each others arms, cavorting in the corridors of power or hand-in-hand in refugee camps.  Radcliffe is reminded by Edwina that ‘hope lies with Nehru, not the Muslim League.’ In one memorable scene the Mountbattens have a blazing row about him being used as a messenger for her ‘darkie.’ She is unrepentant and in turn accuses her husband of deliberately fast-forwarding the Independence Bill by 9 months to hasten her departure from India and Nehru — a charge he does not deny.

Radcliffe too is confronted with a crisis of confidence and conscience. He has already succumbed to arm-twisting on the final location of Calcutta. The fate of Kashmir, earmarked by him for Pakistan will be ‘decided’ through a referendum. But he must draw the line somewhere on making unethical compromises.  He cannot be a gangster’s ‘patsy’ any longer. He will resign. Cracking up under the pressure, he seeks solace in the wisdom of the Bhagwad Gita. A nocturnal visit from the deity in the shape of Lord Krishna gives him his moment of clarity. The lines must be re-drawn. Ferozepur, he cries out, divinely inspired, Ferozepur must go to Pakistan!

Soon enough, Radcliffe is rudely brought down to earth. The representative of the King Emperor, Mountbatten pays him a visit to remind him of geo-political realities: India is bigger, more populous and the more powerful. ‘If we must favour her, so be it.’ Radcliffe must change his map again. A knighthood waits. A fee too. Five thousand pounds? Surely it can be increased. Aghast, Radcliffe declines.  He questions the viceroy’s neutrality — to which Mountbatten retorts: ‘fairness was just an outward show.’ Radcliffe appeals to the heavens. ‘Oh, God!’

The rest we know is history. A contemporary poem by WH Auden entitled ‘Partition’ lampoons the moment superbly:

‘…but in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided

 A continent for better or for worse divided

The next day he sailed for England, where he could quickly forget

The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not.

Afraid, as he told his club, that he might get shot.

As the hour of freedom approaches, Jinnah and Nehru address their born – again nations. Vicious flames erupt ominously behind the delicate filigree screens. The ‘free’ sub-continent is burning.  It is a chilling moment and … 66 years later, I could not help shed a tear or suppress anger at the unfairness of it all. Pakistan was deliberately born deformed. A bird without a head…two unequal wings and no body. It was crippled from the start, never meant to work, always meant to fail.


My mind raced backwards. The Wars of 1948, 1965, 1971, 1999… the needless slaughter. Dark thoughts of revenge, retribution, righting historical wrongs clouded my imagination. I recalled a TV interview of Mountbatten — he had gloated when East and West Pakistan had broken-up, the two-nation theory in tatters. I remembered too of his assassination by the IRA in 1979. No flags were lowered in Pakistan. Then mercifully I had a Nelson Mandela moment: focus on the present, not the past. Move forward, not back. People that continually invoke past grievances remain bitter and confused, stifled and stationery. We must draw a line on the events of the past. Only then can the nations of South Asia be truly free.

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